I’m about to share some very personal information with you. It’s not going to be pretty, or feel good, or perhaps even make sense. It could be more prudent of me to keep to myself, but I’m accepting a challenge from Kevin Breel. He’s a courageous young man who gave a TedxYouth talk titled “Confessions of a Depressed Comic.” (It’s only eleven minutes long, and I encourage you to watch it.) At the end of Breel’s speech, he implores us to help the sufferers of depression by doing our part to help end its stigma. The stigma is, as Breel says, very real, and it plays a large role in keeping those who are depressed from getting the help they need. I agree with Breel that maybe the first step in ridding our society of the ignorance and shame surrounding depression is to talk openly about it. So here I go.
I suffer from depression. I’ve struggled with it since I was thirteen years old and suicidal. A lot of people would be surprised to hear that, perhaps even some of my close friends, because (and not to sound braggy) I have it pretty good. I have an amazing life full of love and success, and I’m immensely grateful for it. But I periodically battle depression. You might be wondering why–after all, I’m a privileged young woman with no obvious reason to be depressed, so what right do I have to be sad? That, my friends, is the stigma. I’m guilty of it, too, and I’ll address it some more. First, for the sake of hoping that my honesty might help someone out there going through the same thing, I’m going to give you a glimpse of what my struggle with depression is like. (For the record, I do not speak for all depressed individuals. Depression is a complicated mental illness that affects each person differently.)
I’m actually depressed as I write this, having fallen almost a year ago into a familiar mental quicksand that I know I cannot crawl out of. When I do find myself on solid ground again, experience tells me it will be for no other reason than my depression has just run its course. Until then, I have days–sometimes weeks in a row–when I’m overcome by the symptoms so many others share: a feeling of hopelessness, loss of appetite, reclusive behavior, loss of pleasure in activities I once enjoyed, difficulty making decisions, extreme fatigue, a general “weight of sadness,” as the commercial for Zoloft puts it. But what plagues me the most is a symptom no one wants to talk about, yet many depressed people know all too well: the existential mindfucks. Why are we here? What is the point of living? Is there anything behind all this? Do we have free will or are we some pre-programmed fart of the cosmos? Why does existence exist? Why is life so hard? What is the why behind the why? These questions play in my mind like a maddening song on repeat whose source I can’t find, a dark background piece to accompany my agonized stare at life. (Yes, I know that sounds dramatic. You should see my poetry.) When I’m not depressed, I still ponder these sorts of philosophical/cosmological thoughts–as my sister Kate says, I think hard–but when I am depressed, my questions no longer come from theoretical curiosity. They come from furious despair.
I do try to shush the questions and think happy thoughts. Oh, how I try. For example, I’ll wake up and tell myself that today will be a good day. No dark questions allowed. I’ll play me some Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros on my way to an audition, appreciating the way the sunlight hits the palm fronds as I drive down Santa Monica Boulevard. I’ll make myself smile because it’s supposed to trigger endorphins. I’ll breathe in the scent of the ocean. Being alive isn’t so bad. Then I reach a stoplight and see a homeless man limping through the crosswalk. He is clearly in pain, and his lips speak to no one who cares. In that instant, every drop of serotonin I’ve worked to muster vanishes, replaced by the cold, dead feeling of meaninglessness. My mind’s grim Q&A starts again. Why are we here? Why did this man have to be born? Why did I have to be born? Why does anyone have to be born just to die?
Death is the only way out.
But what if it’s not? What if there is an afterlife, or even worse, reincarnation?
…How can I kill my soul?
This is my depression. Sometimes I think I’m getting better, and there will be days when I feel so close to happy. Then I come across something sad, whether it’s a picture of Syrian refugees or a phone call from a distressed family member, and the existential mindfucks send me plummeting once more. I retreat into social isolation because I don’t have the energy to pretend I’m not a downer. If I’m less than cheerful and people ask why, I don’t know what to tell them. At the beginning of a depression spell, when I can feel it coming on, I desperately try to come up with an obvious reason for it. If I can pin it on something—anything—then maybe I can fix it. But even more so, I’m desperate to come up with a reason so I can justify to my friends and family why I’m going to be feeling pretty down for an indefinite number of months. Career indecision, relationship stuff, news headlines. Anything other than that I am depressed.
That is the stigma of depression. It’s the idea that you’d better have a darn good reason to be sad about life.
It’s scary to say the word ‘depressed’ out loud. It feels like I’m confessing to a crime, the crime of being both successful and unhappy, of being beautiful and feeling angry, of being healthy and wanting to die. I hope, like most people, that I’ll be met with compassion if I confide in someone, but instead I’m often met with what feels like a guilt trip.
“What do you have to be depressed over? You have it better than millions of other people.”
“You have so much to be grateful for, you have so much opportunity. Count your blessings. Life could be much worse.”
To insinuate that I am ungrateful, that I am sad because I’m unappreciative of my good luck in life, makes my blood boil. Then come the, “You just’s.”
“You just need to work out more.”
“You just need to stop thinking so much.”
“You just have to make the choice to focus on the positive.”
You just, you just, you just… I get so tired of hearing those words. Like I haven’t tried just-ing myself already. Like it’s that easy. Reactions like this push me further into an already shameful closet, leaving me feeling invalidated, misunderstood, and hurt. I get where my loved ones are coming from, and I sincerely appreciate their efforts to help, but depression is not a choice. I once had the ignorance to think it was, but after many years of “choosing” happiness and failing miserably, I felt worse. What did comfort me was finally accepting that I had no choice in how I felt, or why. Years of therapy and introspection have helped me acknowledge certain events in my life that may contribute to my depression, but being able to connect dots from my past hasn’t changed the ups and downs of my present.
Depression is difficult to accept in oneself. It’s even more difficult for others to accept. I think this is partly because a lot of people don’t have a clear understanding of what depression is. For starters, there are at least nine different types of depression. They range from major to manic, from seasonal to postpartum. Then there are the misconceptions surrounding depression, such as the idea it only afflicts the grieving, the traumatized, or the terminally ill. In fact, depression can cripple anybody. What can be even more crippling is the feeling that you are alone in your depression, and that you are not allowed to talk about it; that you’d better have a good reason to be depressed if you say so out loud; and that you’d better follow all the advice you get, even if you know it’s ineffective, or else shut up with your complaining and don’t be surprised when people call you a spoiled narcissist or an emo-kid, or when they stop wanting to hang out with you because you’re “negative.” This is the stigma, and this is what contributes to suicide ranking number three as the cause of death in young adults. How can anyone get help for their depression when the people around them make them feel even worse for being depressed to begin with?
For many illnesses, acceptance is the first step to recovery. Depression is no exception. If we want to help those who suffer from depression, we as a society need to accept it as a legitimate mental disorder. We need to take responsibility for our contribution to its stigma, and we need to make efforts to be more compassionate. If a friend tells you they’re depressed, take them seriously. Listen patiently without judgment or guilt trips, and don’t impose your ideas on how you think they should fix themselves. Get the fixing mentality out and the accepting mentality in. It’s not comfortable, but accepting someone’s depression can make a major shift toward their improvement. Let them talk. Ask them what it’s like. Listen to their dark thoughts without trying to convince them to be positive. Allow them to ask the answerless questions, to lay in bed all day if they say getting up is too overwhelming. Don’t ask them why. Research what you can do to recognize when a friend is suicidal, and how you can help.
If you struggle with depression, I hope you feel less alone after reading this. If you’ve never been depressed, I hope you feel better equipped to help someone who is. May we all do our part to live honestly and with compassion, so that we might end the stigma of depression and give its sufferers the support, understanding, and help they need.